MPs vow to reform sex-trade laws

Libby Davies motion spurs call for action

Peter O'Neil and Gwendolyn Richards
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, February 08, 2003

OTTAWA -- The brutal murders and disappearances of Canadian prostitutes weighed on MPs Friday as they agreed unanimously to consider major reforms -- including possible decriminalization -- of Canada's sex trade.

Suzanne Jay

CREDIT: Vancouver Sun

MPs from all parties endorsed a motion to have the justice committee take a new look at the law with the intent of improving protection of prostitutes as well as communities affected by the sex trade.

The motion was initiated by New Democratic Party House leader Libby Davies (Vancouver East), who represents the urban area frequented by most of the 63 women who disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in recent years.

Robert (Willy) Pickton, 53, is charged with 15 counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of some of the missing women.

The fate of the missing prostitutes was mentioned by speakers throughout the hour-long debate Friday on Davies' motion.

"As other speakers have noted, it is very sad that it took a tragedy the scope of what is unfolding in Vancouver to draw attention to this problem," said Canadian Alliance MP Jay Hill (Prince George-Peace River).

MPs from across Canada portrayed sex trade workers as society's punching bag.

"At the extreme there are the chilling disappearances and slayings of so many sex trade workers in Vancouver and other cities across Canada," said Montreal Liberal MP Marlene Jennings.

"Even under the more ordinary circumstances, prostitution is associated with physical violence, including rape, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies and often psychological abuse.

Few MPs spelled out possible legal remedies and Davies said it should be left up to committee members, expert witnesses, and ordinary Canadians to influence the ultimate recommendation to Parliament.

But she said one possible solution is decriminalization, which would effectively be a "harm reduction" approach that was recently endorsed by the federal government as a way of establishing safe injection sites for illegal drug users in certain Canadian cities.

She said street prostitutes have been marginalized and forced into high-risk situations because of unequal enforcement of the federal law, which treats prostitution as legal but criminalizes solicitation and communication for the purposes of prostitution.

That law makes sex trade workers more vulnerable because they will go into locked cars, back alleys, and other remote areas so they and their clients can avoid police prosecution.

Davies said the wording of the motion is intended to assure citizens that laws won't be changed in a way that endangers communities.

"We won't let sex trade workers flourish around schools," she said.

Not everyone is welcoming the politicians' plan to look at reforming the law. Suzanne Jay, a spokeswoman for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, said there are major problems with the federal government's approach to prostitution.

"The way they're proceeding now is going to make things worse for women," she said.

Jay said the only way that reforming the law could be effictive is if includes a clause dealing with women's equality.

Jay's concerns centre on the fact that Davies works on the premise that prostitution is work.

"It's not labour that's being sold, it's the actual human being," said Jay.

The government's focus is looking at making prostitution safe, instead of creating opportunities so that women don't have to prostitute themselves to begin with, she added.

Instead, Jay is calling for the government to change their focus and begin treating the factors that lead women into prostitution. Cuts to legal aid, welfare and women's advocacy organizations have created a situation where women turn to prostitution and those issues need to be addressed, she said.

"That will help women not become prostitutes and that will help women who are prostitutes get out of prostituting and it will help women protect their kids from getting dragged into prostitution too," said Jay.

The discussion of decriminilization or creating so-called "red light districts" is also a major concern for Jay who said that Australia's decision to legalize prostitution has led to problems.

"Their sexual assault rate has gone way up, but their sexual assault conviction rate has gone way down," she said. "That's not what I want here."

MPs said Canada's most vulnerable citizens -- poor aboriginal women, drug addicts, and immigrants -- are most likely to enter the sex trade and therefore most likely to face grim consequences.

MP Jennings said it is "unbearable" to think of teenagers and children working in such a dangerous trade and added that Canadians "will not tolerate the exploitation of women and children."

But several other MPs argued that Canadians and their lawmakers have, in fact, been wilfully blind to the issue.

"We -- as a nation -- we are willing to tolerate the idea of a sex industry provided we do not see it on our streets," said Winnipeg New Democratic Party MP Pat Martin.

NDP health critic Svend Robinson cited the conclusion of Simon Fraser University criminologist John Lowman, who wrote a 1998 paper arguing that the Criminal Code is hypocritical.

"It tolerates off-street prostitution--and all we have to do is go to the phone book to see that with pages and pages of ads for escort agencies," Robinson (Burnaby Douglas) said.

"But when it comes to street prostitution there is still a glaring double standard."

 Copyright  2003 Vancouver Sun

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